Tag Archives: recovery

Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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Happy Valentine’s Day

The first time has stuck with me in strange technicolor detail that enters me at such random times–when I see a flower, when I hear a song, when someone gives me a card. We were sitting on the couch in the apartment I shared with his sister, a red and yellow plaid deathtrap that I covered with a gray blanket, watching a movie. He pulled the blanket over us to have what he jokingly referred to as happy movie time; I said no. It was the first time I said no. It was the first for a lot of things. It somehow escalated from there, yelling and screaming and me wanting to cuss but not because I was still a good woman of God then, or so I thought. I remember the precise moment it occurred to me: You are unhappy here. Go.

 
So I did. 

My keys were in the always empty crystal fruit bowl on the two-seater kitchen table, and I stood up and scooped them up without fanfare. I said nothing to him. He may have asked where I was going; he definitely paused the movie we had started. We hadn’t gotten to the pants off stage of things, so all I needed was my coat and I was gliding out the door before he even knew what was happening, on an elated high because how had I never realized before that it was as simple as walking away?

I mean. It was never that simple.
 
He had me by the elbow before I was at the door to the parking lot, said some words about how I couldn’t go, how we would fix it, how I could change. Me. Me change. I didn’t want to change then. I opened the door and he dug in with his fingers as I stepped through, sinking through the coat like a falcon on prey. 
“You can change, I promise you can.” 
God, his fingers hurt. Asshole. 

We were suddenly at the car, a tornado of emotions and rage and something called love that wasn’t actually what it was named for. He threw me to the ground like I was nothing because I was nothing, so I screamed fire because it seemed like the thing to get people to come. He backed off; I got in the car and drove away as he banged the back hood and then threw himself down like a toddler in a fit. It was dark, but I still saw his shadow in the rear view. My elbow stabbed; I cried. 

Fast forward a few weeks. I told myself that I loved his sister too much to leave. I didn’t know, then, what that love was. I thought I could go back to the apartment she and I shared and not be involved with him, just with her. We made a rule that he was not allowed inside, but I came home the week before Valentine’s Day and he was there, on the tattered couch, ready and waiting with the blanket and a very clearly planned agenda. I locked myself in my room. He came every night that week with gifts I had no need for–a teddy bear, roses, chocolate–and then the Phantom of the Opera tickets. It was a limited run engagement of the movie starring Emmy Rossum as Christine, and it was playing at one moviehouse in Wisconsin. Like the Phantom himself, he had banked on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to resist the music. He guessed correctly. 

There were red rose petals on the seat of the car when I opened the door; the car smelled of sickly sweet flowers layered over the normal blend of Axe and All Spice. He took me to dinner at Outback when we normally only went as expensive as Chili’s, and he told me over an onion blossom and then filet mignon that he was sorry for his part in things but he knew I could change. “You can be better. Then we can be better.”


It’s my fault you’re not better?




I didn’t say anything. 

He paid, for everything, when before we had always split. Was he actually changing? Was this how it was supposed to be between us, a quiet storm held back by steak and movie candy? We got in the car to go home after, me quietly humming after Emmy’s haunting vocals and him clutching the wheel at ten and two. His hand slipped down to my thigh. 

“So we’re together again, then?”

It was a choice, a simple yes or no in a car going nearly 70 miles per hours down the freeway, and I said yes because it seemed easier. I had to be with someone to be whole, and if not him, then who? I let his hand stay on my thigh. I let it drift. I forgot how my elbow had hurt and resolved that yes, yes I would change, because it was better this way. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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You Are Beautiful

You are beautiful. Your fingers so tiny but so long, nails that won’t grow past their tips; your eyes closed, lids almost translucent and covered in sleep that will never be erased; your head, covered in wispy hair that will never be longer or gain color; your entire essence contained in one black and white photograph that I said I would never want. That’s a lie, I know now. I’d take more if I could. I would cling to your weight, dead in my arms, and not return you, not send you to their fridge, to the van, to the crematorium, to a velvet covered red heart, to be scattered by the ex in an unknown location as a means of showing me how little it all meant. How you were just a pawn in it all. 

I am sorry for that. You can’t know. 



This year, as I grow and learn about myself and reach out more and form more, better relationships, I confront a new reality in which you are not and never can be found, a reality in which you wouldn’t have ever existed. Up until now, I have always whispered that I’d rewind it and take it all back, everything to now, to hold you again and have you live, but I realize now that I wouldn’t. It wasn’t fair.

 
It isn’t fair. 

When you died, you gave me a gift–you showed me the world for what it is. I was in a stage of pretend, trying to force rocks and weeds to be unicorns and rainbows when a rock will always be a rock and a weed will always be a weed. You gave me the greatest gift–my freedom–as a catalyst, you allowed me to finally go, to break away. Every year at this time, I picture you as you would be–a big, genuine smile (I’m told mine is fabulous), a head full of hair (brown like mine, I’m sure it’s brown), an avid piano player who has well surpassed me even at seven (because those fingers, god, those long fingers)–but this year, as I confront reality, I picture a different scene. You, me. Dead. Because could we have survived another seven years in a world that constricted and stifled us beyond a point of recognition? I cannot answer that question. You will never be able to answer that question. He took everything from me, and I think he would have eventually taken you too. 

I think he did take you. 



I don’t know where you are now. But I know where I am. In the city, a modestly successful writer with a graduate degree who trains dogs and is trying to reinvent herself. No, not trying. IS reinventing herself. This is a place I would not have been without you, but also a place I never would have been with you. I am grateful in ways you can’t understand, that I can barely understand, for that brief duration of your life. I hope you understand the love behind all of this, behind every statement and every thought I have of you. 

I’m not saying I’m glad you’re gone, but I think it echoes behind the scenes of everything because I think you’d be gone anyway

Your existence is so much more than a brick in the ground in Wisconsin that’s covered in ice the entire season of your life, so much more than a hospital bracelet and a disc of pictures of people I didn’t love because they didn’t love me holding you for longer than I myself could stand to do so, so much more than this land of new people who do not even know your name, who will never know. 

You never would have been here. 



Happy February, my love, my life. You are my life, in more ways than just existing, and I am eternally grateful for what you gave up so that I could be here. Because of you, I know that I am more. More than a wife who cooks and cleans and earns all the money while being nothing more than a title, more than a physical and emotional punching bag, more than a girl in the backseat of a car in a parking lot in a situation that completely lacks of sense and orientation. I’m worth something, and while I may not always recognize or understand that, I am worth something because of you. 

You are beautiful; I am too. 

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Concrete Rescue

I found out I was pregnant when I was barely 24 years old. I peed on three separate sticks and took two blood tests because I didn’t believe it could possibly be true. “Tell me again how it’s possible I could be pregnant when I just went off birth control,” I remember asking, because it didn’t seem possible that one could be pregnant after so few days not swallowing the tiny anti-baby pill. I dreaded the conversation that would follow with the husband as much as I bounded towards it with glee; he would hate the pregnancy, I knew, but it would also keep us together. It did not, in fact, keep us together. When the baby died, everything about our marriage that we had pieced together with duct tape and shoved under the rug shattered into minuscule pieces that exploded everywhere. I had thought, mistakenly, that a baby would fix everything. But you can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed; this is a thing I now know intimately. 

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my place in life. Where I’m at, career wise, rescue wise, life wise. What I believe in. There are so few things in life that I know to be consistently true:

  1. I have a big heart. Too big. Exceedingly big.
  2. I will never be married to another man for as long as we all shall live and thus will not have children.
  3. I love animals.
  4. The shit that happens in life means nothing if we don’t find a way to use it. 
  5. Staying silent only puts the power onto that which we are being silent about.

When you add all of these things together, I guess it only makes sense that the biggest thing in my life right now is dog training and rescue. Dogs won’t talk back to me. They can fill the place of children. And I can use the shit that’s happened to me. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my rescue, with how I fit in in it, in any rescue. But a friend told me that every rescue has their problems, and no rescue is perfect, just like I am not perfect, just like no dog is perfect. Just like nothing, absolutely nothing, is perfect. Rescue isn’t about the politics or the people, but, rather, the animals and what we as individuals can do for them. 

About a year ago, I met a dog named Ziggy. A skinny beagle who spent her life as a puppy producing machine in a mill, she had never seen anything like New York City. Heck, she’d probably never seen the outside of her kennel. She would not come out of her shell for anything–not treats or cream cheese or hot dogs or cuddles. She didn’t want pets really; she didn’t want people, period. She didn’t make much eye contact. She stared down, or she stared at herself, but never at us. Ziggy’s Point A was quiet and heartbreaking and flooded with shyness, but Ziggy’s point B is anything but. She’s in a happy home with another dog and a couple of cats; she’s beautiful, and she looks at her humans and the camera and she’s in touch with herself and her world for the first time. We, as a rescue, gave her another chance. 

After the rape, after the divorce, after the baby died, people close to me gave me another chance. A lot of them. When I thought I was nothing, they told me I was something. When I’d lost everything and was convinced I was fading, they made me see myself. I am here because they told me I was okay. I am not good with people in the slightest; I’m shy and I struggle with conversations and I struggle making connections and I struggle just being present sometimes. But I don’t struggle over dogs; never over dogs. When I’m with a dog, I can communicate with them, for them, about them. When I’m with a dog, I get to know people, and then I make friends that are friends without the dogs. In short, I’m Ziggy. I’m Pedro, I’m Tubs, I’m Georgie, I’m every dog who has ever been and ever will be special to me. 

I haven’t been able to give many people the chances that I’ve been given, the emotional mending, the acceptance, the fresh start, but I’ve been able to be that person for so many dogs. By treating them right, by connecting, by making a fuss for them when something is wrong because they cannot speak themselves, I am doing what people did for me when I was where these dogs are now. Not only that, I am learning how to do this for myself, how to stand up for myself, how to treat myself right.

I’ve been stuck recently on why I’m involved in rescue, and I was reminded today of the reason why. No rescue is perfect. NoBODY is perfect. But the least we can do is take steps to make ourselves and the world even the slightest bit better to live in. We can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed, that’s for sure, but there are dogs out there that we can fix–and in fixing them, we start fixing ourselves. 

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Dear Pepper

Dear Pepper,

I want you to know how special you are. This world that we live in has been created to tell you no, no, Pepper, you are not special. You are not smart. You are just another dog, born in a backyard without a family to hold you and love you and teach you. But Pepper, this isn’t true. You’re one of the smartest pups I know. You’re kind, and you’re considerate of your doggy friends. You share. You’ve learned how to sit and how to walk on a leash and where to go potty, even though everyone said you couldn’t do it. Even though people called you dumb, you persevered. Oh, how you’ve blossomed. How you’ve triumphed. 

I know what it’s like to be on the outside, Pepper, to be the one who everyone says will never be successful. To be abandoned, to be hurt, to not know where you’re going next. To not have a family. I want you to have more. A house, a HOME. People who love you. I want you to feel safe and smart and special and all the things that you, like every being, should get to feel, forever and ever. I don’t just work in rescue because I can; I work in rescue so that you and your friends can have a better life. I work in rescue because I get it, because I’ve felt it, because no animal should have to be abused or neglected or left behind in this dumb world that doesn’t understand you. I want to be the one who understands. You have let me be that, and I have learned so much from my time with you. You have been hurt, yet you still love. You never stopped. I want to be that. I hope you can teach me. 

I wish, for you, for your friends, that the whole world was like me. That everyone would want to work together to find the best for every single animal. But this is not the world. So many animals get hurt. Please don’t give up, Pepper. Keep giving yourself. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep loving. Keep LEARNING. Grow. Be. When I see you do it, I can do it too. 

I wish that I could give you a perfect world, that I could give all the dogs ever that world, the love that you have and the home that you have now. But I can’t, because I’m not enough. Because there are too many dogs and not enough help. Because I am just one woman, and no matter how much I cry that I get it, that I understand because I’ve been hurt too, it is not enough and I cannot save you all. So for now, dear Pepper, just know that you are special. You are NOT dumb. You are loved. And you’re safe. 

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She Used to Be Mine

I like to think there are infinite versions of each of us out there, that our lives split every time there’s a major decision or event and create this other us, the one we never see. Cheryl Strayed calls these the ghost ships, and by that she means the lives that sailed away from us. 
A lot of things have happened in my 32 years. Some I’m proud of; some I’m not. Some were good; some were not. It’s a sticky map. Had I not joined the Christian youth band, I wouldn’t have met my future husband. Had I not married him, I would never have had a child. Had my child not died, I would not have gotten divorced; I would never have gone to college. Had I not gone to college, the events of my third year wouldn’t have happened. But on that same coin, had I not reached out to T, to D, to M, I may not have emotionally survived that year; if I weren’t in school, I’d never have known them. I would never have met N, who taught me what it really meant to be a writer, a teacher, but most importantly, a learner of things. We can do nothing, go nowhere, if we can’t learn. I get that now. I’m learning. Had I not, I’d never have gone on to move to NYC. I wouldn’t have a masters degree. I wouldn’t be a dog walker. I made choices. I survived events. I’m here now. 
When asked what the pivotal moment of my chosen ghost ship is, I struggle to put a finger on it. The first, I think, was that night in the youth coffeehouse sixteen years ago where I said yes. It put me on the path to everything afterwards. The next was losing my son. Am I happy with either of these events? No. But would I change them, knowing it would without a doubt change where I am now? I don’t have an answer to that. Of course I want my son to be alive. But was his death an answer to the question I never had the courage to ask while married?
“Am I safe here? Is this the right choice? Do I deserve more than this?”
If I hadn’t asked, where would I be now? Do we have to lose in order to gain?
I could be so many different people had I made different choices, but everything that has happened to me has gotten me here. Everything that has happened to me has built me into the me that is now, the me that is mine. Every bruise, every scar. Every hurt. Every tear. Every smile. Every hand offered, every hand taken. 
On to the next. To the next. To the next. Grateful for every next step. Good and bad. Beautiful and horrible. 
We like to think of our lives as black and white, life and death, but really, they’re just building blocks to the next plane. The next ship. We can never transfer; we are stuck with the ship we have. We need to make that count. Do we make that count? Do I? Am I mine?

It’s not what I asked for. Sometimes life just slips in through a backdoor and carves out a person who makes you believe it’s all true. And now I’ve got you.

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We March

I was in Union Square today for our weekly dog adoption drive, holding a monster pittie puppy with an affinity for nomming my hands, when one of my clients came by. 
“Oh hey! I’m surprised you aren’t marching!” She and her friend stood there in their matching pink pussycat hats and black “nasty woman” t-shirts, avoiding the adorable dog in my lap who clearly wanted a little puppy nibble of their fingers. 
“Oh, well I’m here,” I said, “which is important too.” And then my chomper dog bit my cheek. 
They laughed. None of it was funny though. Make no mistake, Trump is not my president. He may be THE president, and I can respect the office and the country without respecting him in it, but Trump is not MY president. I don’t march. There’s a lot of reasons why. 
Marches can start peaceful, but a few over the toppers can turn that tide. Passionate people can occasionally become angry people. And I’m sensitive to that. He took from me my ability to be in crowds that huge without worrying, without wondering, without watching over my shoulder. He took a lot from me. He made me a different person. But I got myself on my feet again. By myself. I wrote a book. I wrote another. I found myself, and then that self got lost for a while when Trump got elected, when an overwhelming portion of the country said violence against women is a-okay. 
News flash. It’s not. 
It’s an awful thing, to be a survivor and to be in a world that invalidates this thing that has happened to you. To realize that in order to be your own person, to carve your place and hold your ground, you will have to fight every single day. It should not be this way, but it is. The world says we are nothing, but it’s up to us to tell the world we’re not. 
I read an article tonight about the women Trump sexually assaulted banding together for the Women’s March in DC. Part of me wishes I had done that, automatically feels less than because I didn’t. I’m not though. Many of my friends marched, but I held a dog today, a dog that desperately needs a dog experienced home if anyone is interested. And to me that is just as important. It’s important to show that life goes on, that just because a despicable man accused of sexual assault can become president does not mean that the world stands still. We do not stand still. We march.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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Rosey (On Being Better)

The first time I met Rosey, I almost didn’t meet Rosey. I had been warned that she was having health issues, so I assumed the worst when no dog met me at the door. She was recovering from cancer. Had she died? I wandered room to room through the new to me apartment, calling her name. No response. So I called our office:
“Rosey isn’t here.”
“What do you mean not there?”
I poked my head into the last room. “Not here, not here. Nowhere in sight.” I heard a quiet woof then, shortly followed by a big golden retriever with a white face shimmying out from under the bed. “Aaaaaand never mind,” I added, saying my goodbyes and hanging up.
I stretched my hand out, and Rosey came to sniff it, tail wagging. After some getting to know each other routine, we went into the kitchen and I got a few milkbones for our walk. She promptly stole them from my hand before I could even consider slipping them into my pocket. They were, after all, hers. We set out into the winter March air, crossing the street to Washington Square Park for a good sniff fest of the grass. Rosey was slow. Any other dog would have lapped the park at least twice. Rosey only made it a quarter of the way before we had to turn around. I didn’t mind though. It was relaxing, and she was such a presence that she truly deserved my time.

Rosey taught me a lot about recovery. I don’t think I realized how stagnant I was in my life  and moving on in my identity as a survivor until I walked Rosey at the same time every day, seven days a week; I got to watch her recover and grow. Things were hard for me for a long time. Harder than I let people know. I imagined it was the same for Rosey, that she didn’t want to show people pain and instead gave all the best pieces of herself. Rape survivors are four times more likely to attempt suicide than people who have not been the victims of crime. I’m not that person. I like being alive. I’m the sort of person who needed things to do. All the things. When I sat still, when I did nothing, the largeness of all the things would overtake me. Like Rosey, I took steps. One, two. Three. Always forward. I had to find ways to connect and people to connect to. It was most important to just let myself live.

Rosey got stronger every day. It almost seemed like she was a puppy again. We met another dog in the park, a little black and gray French bulldog named Charlie. Normally Rosey wouldn’t have gone for that sort of thing, but on that particular day she wagged her tail and solicited attention from the much younger pup. They were a blaze of fur, Rosey’s golden locks tumbling around Charlie as he tried to jump up and grab her head sumo wrestler style. A few weeks later, we were stopped by a blogger who interviewed Rosey for his site. She gave him what for, barking until he gave her a milkbone. Milkbones were like doggy crack to Rosey; they were the only treat she could eat. Ever since her cancer, too much protein made her sick. But Rosey made do. Milkbones were her favorite. She learned quickly how to be okay with, and even take advantage of, her experiences.

I think that being okay is relative. I think that we have to work to attain that status. We have to push ourselves. Someone I will always respect from the bottom of my heart once told me, “I think that only you can decide what will help you. No one else can say that for you. It is, like everything else in your life, your choice.” I had to choose to be better than what my attacker made me. I had to choose to move forward, to embrace life, to embrace my gifts and use them. For me, that meant learning how to tell my story and tell it well. Better.

The last time I walked Rosey as her primary walker, she greeted me at the door with a red and white dish towel in her mouth, the whites and grays of her formerly golden face painting her snout into a perpetual smile. Her tail swung back and forth frenetically as she waited for me to try and take her gift; when my hand closed around the fabric, she gave it to me without a fight. I was careful to keep my dislike of dog drool all over my hand off of my face so I didn’t hurt her feelings. “Thank you, Princess,” I told her. I grabbed her harness from the table next to the piano and draped the main part around her neck. Rosey gave me her left paw without being asked so I could fasten the other section of the harness around her middle. She dragged me to the front door practically the second the harness was fastened, prancing from paw to paw and woofing at me the entire way. The entire elevator ride she could barely contain herself; when we arrived on the ground from the 17th floor, she exploded from the elevator and hauled me out of the lobby and across the street to the park–a fireball of energy. A different dog from the one I had first met that walked so slowly I would never jaywalk for fear of us getting killed.

This morning I received an email that today was Rosey’s last day, that she would be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. I was offered the opportunity, as were all of her walkers, to say goodbye. So I did. I sat on the floor in the hallway with her and her dad and spoke to her and whisper sang her favorite song from Shrek. She was completely paralyzed; it was time. Rosey knew I was there with her though, at the end. Her eyes rolled back to meet mine, and I could tell she was happy we were letting go. She had a good life. I know she’d want me to remember the good and not the bad. Rosey was better than her bad experiences, than the cancer that took her after seventeen years. And I know, from getting to be with her for even a small piece of her seventeen years, that I am better too.

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When Sometimes We Fail

My grandma bred in me a spirit of giving; volunteering is a thing I have always done and like to think I will always do. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty well versed in the land of dog via my job and my volunteer time. The volunteer dogs were supposed to be the fun ones–using the knowledge I’d learned on redirection and body language and the intricate way in which dogs think was going to be the new way that I gave back. I had training skills, I told myself. Why not use them? My friend and coworker S found this great organization, and we decided to do just that.

Enter G, a great big lovable smart goofball of a pitbull mix with a food motivated heart of gold and a tendency toward mischievous naughty acts. No one else can handle him, I was told. He was just for me. We clicked instantly. After all, I came with a pouch of treats and two hands to give plentiful pets. We were a match made in heaven. I became G’s personal vending machine.

G, I was told, got bored at adoption drives. He had an incident where he lunged at a passerby, and after that he wasn’t allowed to come out for almost a year. Having never seen the foster farm where he lived, I pictured the worst. I decided that I would be the one to fix him, and I set to work during adoption drives teaching him skills like sit, stay, wait. G and I quickly moved on to more fun commands like paw, crawl, switch, and perch on a stool like a circus animal. He looked utterly ridiculous yet still adorable–an easily 80 pound pitbull standing on a tiny plastic stool, but it was his favorite trick. People loved him, even though he only loved them if they had treats. I loved him. I like to think he loved me too. We had a connection; we understood each other.

It wasn’t until I started writing my thesis that I realized how my love of dog training and my status as a rape survivor went hand in hand. Because I was raped, I have a fear of many things (some weirder than you might expect). Because of the things that happened in the pasts of the dogs I’ve worked with, they are afraid too. The dogs I work with are weird and wonderful and wacky, but for all the fun, they’re hard a lot of the time. T, one of my favorite pitbull mixes, was left alone in her former home for much longer than dogs should be ever left alone; as a result, she was never properly socialized with other dogs and thinks they are the absolute worst. M, a little Boston terrier I walked until recently, was attacked in an elevator and subsequently feared not only the elevator but all other dogs ever. MV, an 80 pound plotthound mix, was not only attacked in the dog park this year, but was also attacked while we were out walking by a homeless man and a shopping cart. She’s afraid of everything now. I like to think that, by training them, I’m helping them. But G was different. He always was for me. I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t know what he’d seen. I tried the best I could to help him.

Today was a busy Saturday. G seemed super overstimulated when I took him from the van. We got to the drive; he got his lunch. There was a little brown haired boy in a blue coat walking a touch too close, pointing a finger at G. I was instantly leery, because G hated kids. I pulled back on the leash, holding tight, and followed the boy with my eyes as he walked to safety beside his parents. I was so focused on him, I never saw the little girl in the pink coat come up behind me. G was on her and had her on the ground before I even knew what happened. We left the drive and looped the city before coming back to give the family time to leave. G was put on no pets restriction. He was fine until a crowd came. There was so many people that another little girl got just a little too close; G went in for a bite, but I had him on such a short leash that he only got her coat. We left the drive. I was told he would never be allowed back. We looped the neighborhood for a long time, and I pondered what I could have done differently. Rationally, I knew I handled the situation as best I could. I knew that anyone else may not have been as equipped as me; I knew those kids could have been seriously hurt if it wasn’t for my quick thinking. But it didn’t make it easier to know the sad fact that I would never see G again. At the van, he went into his crate, and I watched the door close on him eating vanilla ice cream out of a dirty styrofoam cup.

One year together, countless Saturday’s, enough hours to fully earn my CPDT certification, and I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get a chance to.

I feel like I let him down.

When I was raped, the people close to me in life didn’t give up on me. They could have, sure. I was a super bitch for a while there. But it wasn’t because I’m that way by nature. I had been hurt. I lashed out where I could. They didn’t dismiss me. They tried their best to understand. To help me through it. I’m a better person for that, for the strength and the will of the people around me. I’m a strong and wonderful independent woman now. It may seem like a strange correlation, but I work with dogs because I understand them; my experiences have given me this gift that I am only just now beginning to comprehend. Totally different circumstances and species, but I wanted to be for G what people were for me. And I wasn’t that. I stopped coming out as much. I stopped really showing up for him. And, what I think happened, is that G stopped showing up for me.

You can say he’s just a dog. But dogs feel just like people. They hurt just like people. I know he always knew me when those vans doors opened. There was a glimmer, a light, in his eyes the moment he spotted me. Now he won’t know me, and I will no longer know him. That’s hard and feels weird, because I keep telling myself I could have should have done more. He’s just a dog, yes. But he was more than that to me. All of the dogs I work with are. My heart still believes I could fix him. My mind isn’t sure that’s true.

I’m standing on a C train platform right now, waiting for the next train, and when I shove my hand into my pocket it comes out coated in crumbs from G’s treats. I’ll have to give these to another dog, and that’s weird too. I bought the bulk bag–I thought I’d see him next week. I won’t. I know what it’s like to be rejected. I didn’t want to be that person, but I have to be. I was supposed to be this great handler, the best of the best, but there’s this one dog I couldn’t help. One dog that I failed.

A lot of dogs I didn’t.

I smile a little as I finger the treats, even though I’m crying, again (ridiculous, over a dog), and I realize that rather than a failing, I should try to think of my experience with G as an opportunity to learn how to be better. Right now it hurts and it’s sad, and I feel at fault. But I’m not, not really, and I know that. Whether I believe it or not, I need to tell myself this is a learning in order to feel better. I won’t fail next time if I learn from this.

So until I’m allowed to visit you, or until you miraculously get adopted, here’s to everything I learned from you, G. May you have all the ice cream and the hot dogs and the meatballs that you could ever want, and may your dreams be filled with Biljacs chicken and liver treats.

Goodbye.

 

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